Yes, the title is a play on Marshall McLuhan’s notion of a “cool medium.” Medium Cool is a souvenir of McLuhan’s association with the radical mood of the 1960s, depicted here by events surrounding the riots at the 1968 Democratic national convention in Chicago. The movie was controversial when it was released in 1969 — it received an X rating, which, according to the lore, was not for violence or sex, but for political content. People loved and hated it, sometimes simultaneously. An excerpt from Vincent Canby’s New York Times review:
The shock of “Medium Cool” comes not from the fiction, but from the facts provided Wexler by Mayor Daley, the Illinois National Guard and the Chicago police. In his use of these events and others, however, Wexler does seem to be somewhat presumptuous, attempting to surpass the devastating live show that television—Marshall McLuhan’s “cool medium” — presented as the Chicago riots actually were taking place.
Above is Marshall McLuhan interviewed by the CBC about the “global village” during the super-heated phase of his celebrity.
Below is one of Frye’s numerous assessments of McLuhan’s concept from Notebook 11f (1969-70):
The “flow of information,” which is mostly disinformation, is actually a presentation of myths. And people are increasingly rejecting the prescribed myths & developing their own counter-myths. Take another McLuhan phrase, “global village”–one early satellite broadcast was called the “town meeting of the world.” The myth behind this phrase assumes that every technological development creates a new anxiety & understanding–that a village is a community of friends. But, of course, a village may be a community of cliques & feuds & backbiting & gossip of a ferocity far worse than any metropolis, like those hideous little towns at the divisional points of railways, where the conductor’s wife couldn’t compromise her dignity by speaking to the brakeman’s wife. So when communicators, with a schoolteacher’s bright & glassy smile, say: now we’re going to be able to create a dialogue with Paraguay & Tanzania, & won’t that be nice? the reaction is, very often: we don’t want all those people in our living room: we want to get together with the people who speak our language & share our beliefs & prejudices, including, if we’re lucky, a minority that we can have fun of kicking around. Separatism, except when it is a genuine effort to escape from tyranny, is in most respects a mean, squalid & neurotic philosophy, but it is the strongest force yet thrown up by the age of total communication. (CW 13, 97)
The Frye on McLuhan compilation is almost done. I’m off for a few days and will complete it while I’m away. Until then, below is a sample. (I’ve also put together Frye/McLuhan-related posts for Friday and Saturday.)
From “Literary and Mechanical Models” (1989):
Apart from the analogies of ballad and folklore scholarship, I was also influenced by the twentieth-century fluidity of media, in which a story might begin as a magazine serial, then become a book, and then a film. I remember the shock of picking up a copy of [Dostoevsky’s] The Brothers Karamozov and seeing it described as “the book of the film,” but I also realized that certain verbal cores, of the kind I usually call archetypes, were constants throughout the metamorphoses. The variety of media, in fact, was what made the conventions and genres I was interested in stand out in such bold relief.
It was this that made it impossible for me to go along with McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” axiom, despite my general sympathy for what McLuhan was trying to do. McLuhan’s formula was essentially in application of the Aristotelian form-content unity. He says, for example, that the form of one medium is the content of a later medium. I could see the identity of form and content: the content of a picture, for example, is the form of that picture, as long as we are talking about it as a picture and not as a representation of something else. But the McLuhan aphorism also implied an identity of form and medium, and that I cannot buy. A medium is precisely that, a vehicle or means of transmission, and what is transmitted are the real forms. The form of a Mozart quartet is not affected by whether it is heard in a concert hall or over the radio or read in a score, though there would be psychological variants in reacting to it, of the kind that McLuhan made so much of. The real forms are not media but verbal or pictorial structural units that have been there since the Stone Age. (CW 18, 455-6)
With the recent centenary of Marshall McLuhan’s birth, it’s worth noting his presence in popular culture, a sustained example of which is David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. Brian O’Blivion, the film’s mad guru of physical transformation by way of electronic media, was inspired by McLuhan.